one of the first MITH Digital Dialogues, University of Maryland, College Park, 11 April 2000


This is a rather polemical presentation about an issue I have been considering all during my MITH fellowship this semester (Spr 2000): what assumptions do we bring to making a web site? 

Early thinking here, so I've tended to speak in oppositional terms: but they are intended to provoke discussion, not close it off. 

Feel free to ask questions please, but as I want to get thro my remarks quickly and get to general conversation, I may ask you to defer particular questions for our discussion. 

Counter-intuitive is a term thats useful both in feminist theory and in feminist social studies of science and technology, the two intellectual resources Im drawing upon for this presentation. 

And in feminist theory classes I often tell my students that feminism teaches us to pay attention to our intuitions but not to think of them as natural, instead to realize that what seems the *most* natural is often what is most structured by culture.

Creating web sites is certainly not natural. But issues about what are the terms under which we create them may seem quite obvious, or as we say in feminist theory transparent.


In technology circles counter-intuitive thinking is sometimes called “thinking outside the box.” BUT! obviously the “box” keeps changing!

There are four parts to this presentation:

First: narratives of technology: ie. how we talk about technology.

Second: how our feelings of resistance are actual clues to what has become transparent in our assumptions about technologies.

Three: what thinkinng about my own resistances seems to be teaching me as I try to create a web site. 

And finally four: what these resistances have led me to think about more abstractly in my studies in feminism and writing technologies, my field of research. 


What I learned from my technoscience studies teacher Donna Haraway is that we have to pay attention to the way in which we talk about technologies. For example, we need to notice how hard it is to tell stories about technology that don’t fit into a set of conventional story lines already, that technology activists have criticized three ways of talking about technologies, that they have and urged us to create better ways to think, describe and work these out.

But it is also important to notice just how hard it is to do this and that it’s probably not always useful to religiously boycott these story lines. Still, it also the case that the imagination required to create other story lines is part of “thinking outside the box,” that is, part of imagining enlivened technologies.

These are the narratives we want to challenge:
=symptomatic technology

And this is the alternative story line that may be useful to work with:
=technologies viewed through the terms of what we could call "frozen social relations" in a particular historical moment.

Let me explain!


Stories of technological determinisms focus on the importance of technologies generally, or of specific technologies, in their social consequences, which in turn are understood to be inevitable after the technology has been invented. 

Frankly this is possibly the most powerful, exciting and stirring way to talk about technologies and all of us use this story line when we want to get people excited or concerned about the stuff we care about. 

Here are some examples that hopefully demonstrate the kinds of stories I’m refering to here: Claims such as, say,

="TV caused middle-class families of the 50s to retreat from community life and instead create their nuclear focus huddled together around the warm glow of the television set.” Or, 

="Technologies acquire historical weight by reshaping the human condition.”

And remember that altho these story lines are worth criticizing, it is not always possible or even desirable to "boycott" them altogether! 


In another story line technology is talked about as a symptom as when we tell stories in which technologies are used by other big gun social forces, the ones we think are the *most* important, whichever those are to us. Some examples of such social forces might be consumerism, capitalism, encroaching barbarism, sexism, and more.

Model examples could be ones like these: 
="Long hours of tv viewing show how our children have become either passive zombies or ravenous consumers of junk.” Or, 
="Digital hype about the AOL-Time Warner merger is a symptom of rapacious late capitalism’s death grip on every new market.

I’m rather prone to this story style myself, and you’ll probably hear me doing it even in the course of discussion today. I’ll try to catch myself!


Those of us who are trying to advocate new technologies often find ourselves saying or implying that technologies are neutral, in our efforts to correct misinformation of various kinds. Thus we may find ourselves claiming that the importance of technology is the amazing varieties of uses it can be put to: oppressive and democratic, sexist and feminist, altruistic and profit-making....

We might say such things as:
="TV could both contribute to or work against teenage drinking; for every ad for drinking visible during the broadcast of athletic events, there is also some anti-drinking homily delivered by national and local stations and advertisers.” Or, 
="Its not the computers that are the problem, its everyone not having access to them that’s the concern."


The stories I try to tell about technologies however (and don’t always succeed at), are the stories that emphasize that technologies are sites of struggles for power.

As Richard Ohmann (a marxist cultural critic and English teacher) says:
="Technology…is itself a social process, saturated by the power relations around it, continually shaped according to some people’s intentions.”

And my teacher Donna Haraway tries to remind us that because this is so, the possibilities to work for enlivened technologies, ones shaped by principles of social justice, are always present. She says: 
=“the point is to learn to remember that we might have been otherwise, and might yet be….”


I find the imaginative possibilities in stories of technology as frozen social relations to be tremendously exciting myself, and it seems to me technologies are always also about imagination and possibility as well as pivotal in social equalities and inequalities. Both possibility and terror in mixes that cannot always be predicted! I find this a science-fiction-y way of thinking helpful to approaching the counter-intuitive. 

Ohmann presents us with a set of not-quite-SF story lines, about histories that might have been if the social intentions of the past had been different. One such story possibility is one I think especially appropriate for thinking about the Web and about web sites and their constructions:

In 1985 (think about these timeframes) Ohmann asks us this question:

“Suppose that wireless communication had evolved, not under the guidance and for the needs of the British Navy, the United Fruit Company, and commercial advertisers, but among women tinkering in their homes, sharing knowledge about domestic production, establishing networks of childcare and concern. Every receiver is in principle a transmitter as well. Might we have had electronic systems that actually merited the name ‘communication,’ rather than or in addition to broadcasting?”

Notice how much this alternative imagination of radio is spoken in terms many use today about the internet: that we can all be publishers now, that the net is so decentralized that it is the ultimate in democracy, and so on. And while for a long time folks called the internet male, now there are occasional claims that women should find it especially appropriate to their gendered concerns. Ask yourself: what does “broadcasting” look like on the Web?


Well this is a rather “high falutin” (as my dad would have said) way of introducing the mundane concerns I’ve encountered in constructing my MITH project web site. Still, I don’t believe abstractions are unimportant compared to the concrete concerns we have to work on. Indeed, I think the abstractions are clues to some of the possibilities for those imaginations that might alter our social realities. So I care about them even when they are tied to rather simple concrete tasks.

When my MITH technical consultants were helping me begin to put together my project web site, I was asked a simple question: Who is your primary audience?

I blush to confess I found myself in such amazing resistance and irritation I was almost overwhelmed! I was embarressed by this emotional reaction and tried to joke about it, saying, “me!”

But when Allen Renear, from Brown University’s Scholarly Technology Group came to talk to MITH, one thing he said reframed this experience for me. He said that what we learn in the moments of resistance between technical consultants and humanists is at the heart of what we are trying to do. I took this to heart and tried to consider my resistance.


So what I began to think about was what was at stake for me in *not* thinking about my audience as my first act of web site construction! I began to compare it to what I talk about with my students when I teach them analytic writing skills. I share with them a distinction between what  some composition theorists call 
=the writerly paper and 
=the readerly paper

In the writerly paper we use writing as an exploration process, to find out what we think. Only after working through the writerly paper can we then consider how to write the readerly paper, in which we figure out how best communicate these ideas we now know we have.

In the sciences and social  sciences the research process is often divorced from the writing process, all writing then is more heavily readerly. But in the humanities there are longer traditions in which the writing process is itself the research process, and in which writerly traditions are more important.


Beginning to construct a web site with audience as the primary consideration seemed to me to underemphasizing the possibiliites of web construction as writerly rather than readerly.

This emphasis on audience and the objective of the site, assumed, I thought (perhaps unfairly), a kind of advertising model, figuring out what you have to offer to particular audiences of consumption.

In feminist theory we use the term “transparency” to talk about  the assumption that so-called “clear” communication is always the most important relationship to create between authors and readers, and we say that this is an assumption based on seeing readers as consumers, who won’t engage with our materials unless they are rewarded with ease and pleasure.

Feminist artists for example, especially have worked hard to challenge these assumptions, but they remain controversial in feminism.


What about interactivity instead as the rubric under which web makers might imagine themselves engaging in the democratic vision Ohmann is trying to imagine in his story about the alternative pasts of the radio? Well, but interactivity also presumes audience immediately. ARE there other ways to imagine *writerly* processes in the construction of web sites? 


What constrains or shapes our imagination of the Web now? 

=the Net increasingly privatized
=universities and their “campaign financing” and funding issues
=departments pressured to become entrepreneurs
=IT as corporate/academic bridge: what are the consequences? 


So what would a "writerly" website be like?

Well, it would NOT be about broadcasting, or at least not initially or conceptually. It would emphasize the very modeling possibilities in web construction-as-construction, in visualization and conceptualizations shared. And it would emphasize making knowledge as process & as struggles with and for power and equity. 


what about playing with language to describe this process?

Julia Flanders and the Brown’s Women Writers Online database gives us ways to think about:

=intellectual technologies
=visualization tools
=communicating levels of abstraction


The website constructions and play of Matt Kirschenbaum from the University of Kentucky and his William Blake electronic archive are suggestive of:

=technocultural landscapes
=information landscaping
=visualizations to amplify cognition


The scholarship of David Morley & Kevin Robins, British cultural studies and media critics, helps us think about:
=electronic landscapes

While UMD's own Ben Shneiderman, whose work on web interface design prevledges interactivity provokes concerns about:
=dynamic query


And my own playing with language and possibility here?

 I was challenged by a review of my first, outdated and rudimentary web site. It generously suggested what I was imagining could eventually be analytic in "a sustained attempt to situate women's authorship in its material, social, economic and cultural contexts.... Much more integrative historical work on the Web is needed [to balance the scale of the e-text projects].”

I’ve begun to try to collect language to describe doing that in what is now a writerly process of construction, a kind of construction that emphasizes knowledge making processes and attempts to come up with some new ways to communicate them.


What does this do?

Well, considering my resistance led me to clarify my discomforts about assumptions I did not want to subscribe to.

And this led me to reflect on what I’d learned from teaching writing and to apply that to my analysis and hopes and experiments and wonderings about futures and possibilities....


I now understand more about why I care about this web site I’m constructing, even when it’s hard to communicate and create language.

I see this web site in continuity with my other research and writing on how knowledge is made.